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Is Britain Turning Away From Washington?

Richard Weitz

Whether the new British Labour Party government headed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown will seek to distance itself from the policies of U.S. President George Bush remains uncertain. So far, however, Brown seems to be resisting calls for significant change to Britain’s core foreign policies, despite a political atmosphere that is conducive to such a break.

Many British people disapprove of recent U.S. policies regarding Iraq, climate change, and other issues. Moving away from Washington also would allow Brown to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Tony Blair, underscoring his authority and credentials.

Several recent statements by newly appointed members of the Brown government would seem to confirm expectations of a possible turning away from the United States. Douglas Alexander, the new Secretary for International Development, said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that solving international problems requires words and deeds that are “internationalist not isolationist; multilateralist not unilateralist; active not passive; and driven by core values consistently applied, not special interests.” Alexander is a close personal friend of the prime minister and is also general election coordinator for the Labour Party.

In addition, Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown suggested in an interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper that the ties between Blair and Bush were unnaturally close due to their joint leadership of coalition forces during the Iraq war. Lord Brown is responsible for Britain’s relations with Africa, Asia, and the United Nations, where he served as deputy secretary general. He argued that the British government should try to “go beyond the bilateral blinkers of the normal partners” and build ties with a broader range of multilateral partners, in Europe and elsewhere, and make its foreign policies more “impartial.” In June 2006, John Bolton, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, publicly rebuked Malloch Brown when the British official delivered a speech in New York calling on American politicians to “campaign in 2008 for a new multinational national security” policy.

Although these statements can be read as subtle criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, both Prime Minister Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband have denied such an interpretation. The two men recently offered comments that would seem to confirm substantial continuity between the policies of the Blair and Brown administrations regarding the United States. When asked about the Alexander speech, Brown replied that, “We’ll not allow people to separate us from the United States of America in dealing with the common challenges we face around the world.” He went on to tell BBC Radio that he planned to continue Blair’s policies and work “very closely with the American administration.”

In a different BBC interview, Miliband insisted that, “Our commitment to work with the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular, is resolute.” Like Prime Minister Brown, Miliband is a known aficionado of the United States. His wife, Louise, retains dual citizenship in both the United States and Britain. In 2004, the couple adopted an American-born baby, giving Miliband family ties with America.

In explaining British policy, however, Miliband cited primarily pragmatic rather than ideological considerations. He told the audience that, “We want to be serious players who make a difference in the world — and you do that with the United States, not against them.” He also said that any solutions to global problems such as terrorism and climate change would have to involve the United States.

Before Brown became prime minister, the climate change issue had already led to some tensions in the British-American relationship. Blair was both more concerned about the threat and more inclined to support broad multilateral action to tackle it. Since Miliband served as environment secretary under Blair’s government and oversaw the crafting of the Climate Change Bill, policy disagreements in this area might persist. The appointment of Hilary Benn as environment secretary, a strong proponent of international action, reinforces this prediction. The experience of the Blair years, however, suggests that both sides have learned to manage their differences over climate change.

The Brown administration continues to pursue similar policies to that of the Bush administration regarding Iran, Russia, and missile defense, but the Iraq War could eventually become a more divisive issue. Despite widespread speculation in the British media, Brown has not taken steps implying a rapid withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Brown has insisted that there will be “no immediate change in policy on the ground.” Defense Secretary Des Browne, who has been heavily involved in managing British military policies in Iraq, is the most important holdover from the Blair government. In his Washington speech, Alexander affirmed that, “Today the U.K. stands together with the U.S. in confronting international terrorism and confronting violent insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Nevertheless, the war is unpopular in Britain. Some people fear that the country’s prominent role in the Iraq conflict has contributed to a growth of violent Islamist extremists in Britain. In a confidential memo, recently leaked to the press, British military planners worry that keeping such a large contingency in Iraq has severely strained the British armed forces, especially since the new prime minister has reaffirmed Britain’s military commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Another factor that would facilitate a turn away from Washington on Iraq or other foreign and defense policy issues is that influential members of both major opposition parties have criticized Labour for an overly supine approach toward transatlantic relations.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said that the British government should make more of an effort to influence American foreign policy: “Under Tony Blair the relationship was so subordinate as to appear subservient. Britain needs to be America’s candid friend not its client.” Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Michael Moore said that Brown’s efforts to distance himself from Alexander’s remarks only remind “us that this is the man who signed the cheques for the Iraq war.”

David Cameron and other leaders of the Conservative Party have said that both London and Washington would benefit more if the British government assumed a greater role in shaping joint policy making. In an October 2006 speech to a party conference, Cameron said that Conservatives believe that “we must be steadfast not slavish in how we approach the special relationship.”

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